Lockdown review: Natalie Barney’s Last Salon

The Reading Fringe has gone digital and is now open for business. In the theatre section I found this half-hour audio drama, based on a solo show previously presented in Notes to the She-Wolves at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Written by Kelly Burke (who also performs as Natalie Barney), this piece looks at the literary salon developed by the American hedonist who “lived for love”.

Through a handful of scenes marked out as “chapters”, we meet Barney and her close associates Dolly Wilde (Augustina Seymour) and Romaine Brooks (Lucy Newman-Williams). It is a tale of poetic bravado, feminist freedom, and polyamory.

It features a main character who seeks pleasure in every form, collecting addicted and vulnerable women in her web. It depicts a Sapphic scene where the “modernist of the modern” flourish.

Natalie Barney and Renée Vivien
Natalie Barney and Renée Vivien

There is more than a touch of Oscar Wilde’s creation Dorian Gray about the Natalie Barney introduced here. Dolly, a niece of Wilde’s, sinks into drug addiction; Renée Vivien, a sensitive poet, falls deeply in love enough to have a glamorous end.

As an audio play for three rather than a stage monologue, Natalie Barney’s Last Salon is directed by Fiona Leonard and reimagined with the voices front and centre.

Without some knowledge of Barney and the concept of the cultural salon of the late 19th/early 20th century, you may lose “who’s who” but all the performances are clearly delineated, and Barney’s cold confidence only crumbles when the realities of war invade her world of useful friendships and overlapping infatuations.

Natalie Barney’s Last Salon is available until the 31 August. Register for free at the Reading Fringe.

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